If you’re Jewish, come into the parlour . . .
In the Tin Pan Alley years, Irish-Jewish music collusions were common
Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, an accomplished musician. Photograph: Elizabeth Malby/Baltimore Sun
Michael Oren enjoys nothing more after a long day discussing the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy and on the blower to Benjamin Netanyahu and others back in Israel than pounding on one of his three bodhráns.
The American-born Israeli ambassador to the United States became interested in the bodhrán after seeing someone playing it in a pub in Dingle, Co Kerry.
He was taught to play by Abe Doron, a Mexican Jewish guy and the only bodhrán player in Israel – well, the only professional one at any rate. Doron played bodhrán with the Riverdance band. Go on to YouTube and see Oren perform with Evergreen, an Israeli-Celtic band, at an Israeli-Irish night in Washington. In a follow-up clip, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley performs Tribe, a song by Irish singer-songwriter Luka Bloom.
The overlap between the Irish and Jewish musical tribes goes back more than a century on the American music scene. During the Tin Pan Alley era of music publishing between 1880 and 1920, Irish-Jewish musical collaborations were common; the era was so named by Jewish songwriter and journalist Monroe Rosenfeld after the streets of New York around Broadway and 28th Street where songsmiths sweated over pianos in what was the centre of America’s song-publishing industry.
During this time it was common for Irish songwriters to assume Jewish names for commercial reasons when they saw New York’s rapidly changing song-making business becoming distinctly Jewish.
Cohan from Clonakilty
George M Cohan, one of the most acclaimed performers and songwriters of the period, was the grandson of Jeremiah Keohane, who had emigrated from Clonakilty. Keohane’s son changed his name to Jerry Cohan and along with his wife, daughter and son George Michael they became the Four Cohans, a popular song and dance act on the American vaudeville scene in the late 19th century.
“You have to presume they did it for strategic purposes,” said Mick Moloney, professor of Music and Irish Studies at New York University’s Department of Music.
Moloney unearthed intriguing interactions between Irish and Jewish communities in the US for his 2009 album of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley songs, If It Wasn’t For The Irish and The Jews, taken from the title of a 1912 hit for two songwriters Jean Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew, and William Jerome.
Jerome was in fact a Flannery, the son of Patrick Flannery, a Famine immigrant from Co Mayo, but he adopted a Jewish surname not to miss out on this lucrative trend in American songwriting at the time. Jerome and Schwartz also wrote My Irish Molly O in 1915, the equivalent of a chart-topper today.
Irish songs were popular in the Tin Pan Alley years as composers played to punters’ nostalgic images of their lost native land with utopian villages and pretty colleens, far from the famine-era realities that many of their ancestors left behind. Irish-Americans “had the dosh” around this time, says Moloney; they had the disposable income to buy the sheet music to play at their own singsongs as well as the spare cash to attend vaudeville theatre.
Jewish songwriters and performers spotted the profits to be made in writing Irish ditties. Rosenfeld himself wrote several Irish songs, including I’ll Paralyze the Man Who Says McGinty. Norah Bayes, a popular singer during the era, scored hits in 1909 with Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly and in 1917 with George M Cohan’s Over There. Bayes’ real name was Leonora Goldberg; Moloney assumes she changed it to appeal to the theatre-going Irish-American audience.
Bayes and one of her husbands, Jack Norworth, wrote another hit, Shine On Harvest Moon. Norworth is perhaps better known for writing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the baseball anthem to this day.
Stephen Watt, a professor of theatre and drama at Indiana University, points out that Irish and Jewish name-swapping wasn’t limited to music. Michael Gold, the socialist author, wrote in his 1930 novel Jews Without Money about a local man called Kid O’Reilly whom he boxed in a gym built in the basement of a New York neighbourhood. His real name was Aaron Cohen but he chose an Irish name because the Irish were considered better boxers.
Watt is delving deeper into the parallels between Irish and Jewish cultures in America with a book he is half-way through. His interest was first piqued many years ago with his study of Joyce’s Ulysses and why one of Ireland’s greatest writers would pick an Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom, to be his everyman.
As part of his studies, Watt is examining texts ranging from Call It Sleep, Henry Roth’s 1934 Jewish novel about a New York immigrant family that is regarded as the Jewish Ulysses, to the Princeton-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon’s writing about his children’s shared Jewish and Irish ancestry.
“We need hyphenated studies to study the interactions between these groups,” he said. These interactions are most interesting in America where the Irish and Jewish diasporas find a common ground.